In “It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal,” Rebecca Schiff’s unnamed female narrator flies out to California to spend a week with a man she calls the pot grower. They’ve met only once before. The pot grower is broke. He’s obsessing about the end of his amateur bluegrass career. His ex-girlfriend eggs his car while they’re out to dinner. The female narrator winds up paying for everything and resenting it. They go to a nude hot springs and get caught having sex, which is against the rules. “It doesn’t have to be a big deal,” was my mantra, or what my friends gave me as a mantra, or what the culture gave us as a mantra, the culture of managing your mantras,” the narrator thinks.
“You can just have fun.”
“It can just be for fun.”
“It will be really fun.”
“Was it fun?”
That’s the question behind Schiff’s debut collection of stories, The Bed Moved. It’s not clear that life is very fun for the thirty-something women who populate these stories. They are women who “hadn’t really dated anyone” but “had also not really dated everyone.” Men blur, become categories: film majors, “guys trying to grow beards,” musical types, veterans of the Gulf War, men who escaped from the World Trade Center, law students, sound engineers, “recovering alcoholics, suffering workaholics”. This kind of fun is emotionally expensive. “I fell back to the blow job when I was flummoxed,” says the woman visiting the pot grower. “Like a hooker, eye contact and hand-holding had become a bigger deal to me than sex itself… I had broken my own spirit for free.” In another story about an awkward weekend visit, the narrator realizes on the bus ride there that she’s going to dump her boyfriend. And yet it’s easier for her to drop to her knees—which is her happy place—and suck (“Down there was sealed off from his mild wrong, the vague suck of him”) than confess her change of heart.
The sexual revolution was supposed to unshackle women from puritanical values, do away with double standards, and free women to enjoy their sexuality. The Bed Moved suggests that the movement failed spectacularly. Schiff’s female protagonists leave their sexual encounters sore, in need of chiropractic care, disconnected from their bodies, with sexually transmitted infections, utterly unsatisfied: “Guys burrowed down not for long enough, popped up, smiled.” As an argument, this critique of the sexual revolution is thought-provoking. As stories, however, the sameness starts to feel a little numbing, especially because the female characters (who are deliberately indistinct) seem to be mainly reporting on the state of single womanhood when you are sexually free (or is it slutty?). These women don’t seem to discover anything that they didn’t know at the beginning of their tales. The stories don’t even really explore why sexual freedom is a bad idea for this particular type of character or women in general. It just is.
The Bed Moved offers other pleasures, though. In the shortest stories, where plot and character development are less important, Schiff’s cultural commentary is sharp and lethal. In “My Allergies Will Charm You,” she riffs on the state of online dating: “Some like blondes or brunettes, but the terms are dated now. They want nerds who like to be tied up, tits in a certain shape. Are my tits shaped like the tits of request? I wonder.” The narrator here eventually ends up going out for drinks (drinks always trump coffee) with a man who once played a sexually abused kid in a movie. Schiff perfectly captures the absurdity of these encounters, how we turn our best stories into headlines and then tell them to amuse our listeners rather than to convey anything significant—or emotionally risky—about ourselves:
In “I Ate a Pot Cookie and Believed Myself to Be Already Dead” I omitted the emergency room I had taken myself to, where I had asked the other dead people how long they’d been waiting.
In “Rate Me,” a story about the objectification of women’s bodies that veers pleasantly towards the absurd, the narrator literally sends her body parts off to be rated. When her breasts of “average buoyancy” receive an eight, she wonders whether the rater is losing his objectivity. “Maybe he was into me now… Maybe he just liked nipple hair. I liked it. We have to stay sentimental about one flaw, coddle our attachment to something, so we can do extreme violence to the rest. It’s like how the president has a dog.” That series of swerves—from nipple hair to self-hatred to the projection of a certain presidential image by way of a dog—is brilliant, and it’s exciting to watch Schiff perform this linguistic feat again and again in her collection.
When the bed is not moving in The Bed Moved, when Schiff turns her attention from fucking to family, even her more conventional stories have movement and moments of genuine feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, the narrators are younger in these stories, and the dead fathers, who haunt her older, jaded narrators, are more recently gone. Perhaps these young women can still feel because they are not yet beaten down by too much freedom. At the end of “Another Cake,” after all the guests leave her father’s shiva, the narrator watches the video of her bat mitzvah where she had to recite a passage about “cleansing your house of leprosy.” Her father always found religion irrational, and he tells his daughter they’re going to quit the temple right after her ceremony. “‘That rabbi is so pompous,’ said my father. ‘People kept getting sick, and someone had to tell them how to clean and quarantine so they would stop transmitting disease. It’s not moral decay, it’s common sense!”
My father snorted, and I sort of understood, but only enough to wish I had gotten a passage about miracles. The garage door rolled open. He dragged the garbage to the curb. [My mother] boiled water. I trudged up to my room, where I conjugated, masturbated. It wasn’t hard. The young adult books were crisper then, their pages unbent, promising girls reflected in mirrors, girls with scoliosis, girls looking forward to the kind of loss that only hurt a little.